PRAGUE, October 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For many, Alyaksandr Milinkevich has become the face of the Belarusian opposition. The leading challenger to incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the country's March 19 presidential poll, Milinkevich came away with just 6 percent of the vote. But he succeeded in rallying the Belarusian public to an unprecedented degree, with as many as 10,000 people gathering in central Minsk to challenge Lukashenka's win on the night of the ballot. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Milinkevich on the sidelines of the 10th annual Forum 2000 in Prague.
RFE/RL: You have said that the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka cannot be deposed through elections, but only with the help of street protests like those in Ukraine in 2004. What conditions are needed in order for Belarusians to take to the street on a mass scale?
Milinkevich: There are no longer any elections in our country. As in any dictatorship, elections can't bring about a change of power. Only the street -- people at meetings and in demonstrations -- can make things change. Our country is not Ukraine and not Serbia. In Ukraine, apathy had to be overcome to take to the streets. In our country, we had to combat fear, total fear.
RFE/RL: Thousands of people protested in Minsk immediately after the March presidential elections. But those numbers quickly dwindled, and since then, the opposition has been unable to mobilize more than a few hundred, mostly young people, for street protests. Have you been disappointed by the failure to build a big protest movement?
Milinkevich: It's true, what happened was a little surprising, even for me -- and I didn't think there would be many people. But dictatorship is not defeated with the first blow. We must work. But I'm not fighting Lukashenka -- he doesn't interest me. What I'm fighting for are ideas, because everything is distorted by the ever-present propaganda. Even today, without demonstrations, we carry on this work on a daily basis; we distribute information, we mobilize people, we travel to towns and villages.
RFE/RL: You're often criticized for spending your time meeting with European politicians abroad, rather than with your compatriots at home. How do you intend to communicate with ordinary voters in Belarus, especially given the fact that such contacts are often officially prohibited?
Milinkevich: After the elections, I met with many foreign leaders, but this was not political tourism. If we want to think about our future, we must be in touch with people who are influential in Europe. In addition, we are in danger because it is not only democracy we are fighting for -- we are also fighting for our independence [from Russia]. And here, Europe's help and understanding are absolutely essential.
RFE/RL: In March you announced the creation of a broad democratic movement For Freedom in Belarus. Has this initiative progressed beyond its declaration? Quite recently you have said that you're taking personal responsibility for the establishment of this movement. Does this means that parties united in the Political Council of Democratic Forces have ceased to see you as the leader of the united opposition and refused to cooperate in setting up the new movement?
Milinkevich: After the elections, we understood that many new people not belonging to parties and NGOs came to help us during the elections. I wanted the dozens of parties forming the coalition to start uniting all these people. Unfortunately, the parties failed to do this and people are now displeased. I am still the leader of this union of parties, but it is progressing very slowly. It's not that easy. After the elections, or even before, this movement will break up into parties. There are social democrats, Christians, liberals. But now we all need to be together.
RFE/RL: Should the Belarusian opposition seek support from Moscow to oust Lukashenka?
Milinkevich: Freedom is above all our own affair. But our movement needs support in Brussels, in Moscow, and in Washington. I don't think Moscow will decide everything, but I am always seeking contact with decision-makers there. This is necessary, because our leader has been saying for years that [the opposition] are Russophobic, that we are anti-Russian, and this is not true. Of course I'm pro-Belarusian, but I would like to have the best of relations with Russia.